Friday, March 25, 2005

It's Terrorism, Stupid!

The NES includes a question, “What do you think has been the most important issue facing the United States over the last four years?” In 2004, terrorism and the war in Iraq clearly dominated voters minds. Approximately 42 percent of voters cited terrorism as the most important issue. Coming in a distant second was the war in Iraq with 17 percent, followed by the economy at 9 percent. In contrast, the cluster of moral and social issues (abortion, family values, gays and gay marriage, etc.) made up only 2.6 percent of responses.

For one issue to so dominate an election is rare. In fact, the last time that an issue was cited by this many respondents was in 1968 when 43 percent cited the Vietnam War. The next highest were inflation in 1980 (32 percent) and unemployment in 1976 (31 percent).

Moreover, President Bush dominated on the issue of terrorism. Among those who cited terrorism as the most important issue, 70 percent voted for Bush. That’s the highest percentage of supporting a candidate on the most important issue in any election since 1960 (when NES first began to ask the question). The next closest was 66 percent for Nixon on Vietnam in 1972 and 65 percent for Gore on education in 2000. But the overall advantage received by those candidates was lower than that for Bush in 2000 because the percentage of people citing those issues was much lower (27 percent citing Vietnam in 1972 and 15 percent citing education in 2000). Overall, Bush’s advantage on the most important issue in 2004 was huge compared to any election since 1960. Here advantage is defined as the performance for Candidate A (% of voters citing an issue X % support for Candidate A among those citing the issue) minus the performance of Candidate B. The following table shows the performance for incumbent and non-incumbents on the most important issue in each election since 1960. (Negative numbers indicate an advantage for the challenger).

YearIssue% Citing As Most Important Issue% Support for Incumbent Party/CandidateIncumbent PerformanceChallenger PerformanceIncumbent Advantage
1960Foreign Affairs9610.050.040.02

In addition, Bush's advantage on the terrorism issue far outstripped his advantage on moral issues. Furthemore, Bush's advantage on terrorism was much greater than the advantage Kerry received on the issues of Iraq or the combined issues unemployment and the economy. Overall, Kerry's advantage among those who cited Iraq, unemployment, or the economy as the most important issues was not enough to offset Bush's advantage on terrorism.

Issue% Citing as Most Important Issue% for BushBush PerformanceKerry PerformanceBush Advantage

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